The 1969 documentary “Royal Family” was a lackluster attempt at improving the dented image of the palace in the eyes of the public by presenting the members of the British royal family as “ordinary people.” It was slammed by the press and even though it was shown on television, it failed at its purpose, which is why it was pulled from circulation by the palace itself, at the behest of Queen Elizabeth.
The award-winning Netflix series “The Crown,” whose first season came out in 2016, succeeded in imbuing what was essentially a fictional portrait with a lot of fact and realism. It is a bold biography of the late queen, painstakingly put together with the assistance of expert advisers and historians, and written by a team of excellent screenwriters. The palace also raised some objections to how certain events and people were portrayed, but the series was a smash hit with the public and the press alike.
Do institutions fare well under public exposure? Can we talk about “symbols” without images? In short, can we talk about public figures without turning to their public image?
In the fourth episode of the series’ third season, Queen Elizabeth is seen talking with Prime Minister Harold Wilson about whether royals can be ordinary people, following the public screening of the above-mentioned documentary. The queen (played by Olivia Coleman) says: “I would favor the royal family being kept out of sight, out of mind. For our own survival and sanity. But the thing is we cannot be hidden away. We have to be in full view all the time. So, what is the answer? The best we have come up with so far is ritual and mystery. Because it keeps us hidden while still in plain sight. The smoke and the mirrors, the mystery and the protocol, it is not there to keep us apart. It is there to keep us alive.”
Britain’s longest-reigning monarch shaped her public image by advancing the notion of protocol, methodically and carefully, for 70 years. This is how she allowed herself to be taken onto a helicopter by James Bond (played by Daniel Craig) and to appear as though she were parachuting into the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Games at the age of 86: unblemished but not unmovable.
Queen Elizabeth knew that maintaining the symbol was also an important duty. It is something that takes constant effort and commitment, a work in progress that death may stall but cannot erase.